The Chicago Bears had to scramble with all the injuries along their offensive line most of the 2020 season, but no position was hit harder than center. They lost their back-up center, who was also their starting left guard, to a week five injury that kept him on IR all year. They promoted a practice squadder as a reserve for week six. Their starting center hurt his calf week seven which gave the practice squadder his first reps on offense. The starter missed week eight and the reserve got his first start at center. It was revealed after week eight that the back-up was hurt in that game. And did I mention the positive COVID test that hit the original starter while he was recovering from his calf injury?
In week nine they started another practice squadder, but this one was playing center for the first time in his career. In week ten the original starter came off the COVID list to regain his starting position. And then finally, after the bye week the first practice squad center returned from his injury to start at center, which in turn slid the starting center over to left guard and the second practice squad center moved over to right guard with the right guard kicking out to right tackle.
Did you follow all that?
Here’s how the Bears are looking at center this offseason.
Sam Mustipher - Signed through 2021 - I was surprised at Mustipher being able to help stabilize the offensive line once he got his shot on the active roster. As a member of the Bears 2019 UDFA class, he just seemed like a camp body until the Bears found someone better to roll with. I guess some of that is because his more heralded college teammate, Alex Bars, was a part of that same UDFA class, but also because it’s been a while since the Bears actually found a UDFA offensive lineman that stuck around and contributed.
Mustipher’s coaches and teammates all laud him as a player, as does former Bears All-Pro center Olin Kreutz. “I think the film says that you can trust him in there as a starter or as a guy who can be the center/guard backup,” Kreutz said via NBC Sports Chicago. “Sam does a really nice job organizing the Chicago Bears offensive line, and by that I mean the center’s first job really is to be a traffic cop, point out the mike linebacker, by that I mean he organizes the protection, let’s everybody basically know who they’re blocking off of his point of the Mike linebacker. So Sam does a nice job of that.”
As a coaches son, Mustipher has all the intangibles you want in an offensive lineman. He’s a leader, he’s a coach on the field, he plays with energy, and he’ll put in all the work needed to improve as a player.
Cody Whitehair - Signed through 2024 - If there’s one thing we learned in 2020, it’s that Whitehair needs to stay at guard. It’s not that he was bad at center, I mean he did make a Pro Bowl at the position in 2018, it’s just that he thrived in the second half of this last year while playing left guard.
Part of the reason Whitehair went back to center during the 2019 season was his familiarity with quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and his experience in setting the protection was needed that year too.
Whitehair is a technically sound offensive lineman, but like most at his position, he’d benefit from settling into one spot. His versatility is fine in a pinch, but if he can stick in one position (guard) we’ll see him back in the pro bowl in 2021.
James Daniels - Signed through 2021 - Daniels was in the midst of his best year as a pro before he went down with a torn pec week five. We’ve seen him play at guard and center during his time in Chicago, and he seemed to be settling into that left guard spot this year. He bulked up a bit last offseason and it paid off on the field. He’ll turn 24 this September, so his best football is still in front of him, but at this point it’s unsure where that will be, center or guard.
Offensive line coach Juan Castillo isn’t ready to hand out any positions yet. “That’s a ways off,” said Castillo via the teams site when discussing who’ll line up at the three interior spots, “and I think there’ll be some good competition. When you talk about James being a center, sometimes you’re used to playing both sides, so I think that yes, there’s going to be some good competition, and we’ll be really good inside.”
2021 OUTLOOK - There’s a lot to like in Mustipher’s 2020 tape, but also plenty of concerns. I don’t think the Bears can count on him being their center of the future, but if he has a great offseason and comes into camp a bit stronger, then maybe he wins the job. The best case scenario for Chicago is for that to happen, which would allow Daniels and Whitehair to stay at guard.
If Mustipher doesn’t take control of the position early, my guess is it’ll be Daniels getting the nod this offseason. This will be his fourth year as a pro so he should be able to man the spot from a cerebral standpoint.
With three players capable of playing center, plus the aforementioned Alex Bars who filled in there for a game, the Bears may not look to add another “center” in free agency, but I think drafting a guard that could play some center would be smart. If Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Quinn Meinerz is still there on day three, the Bears need to pounce. He was one of the stars of the Senior Bowl and would provide depth on the interior as a rookie.
Regardless of who they draft or sign in free agency, I’ll be pulling for a Whitehair, Mustipher, Daniels starting threesome on the interior.